Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Class memory: Peterloo 1819

The film Peterloo by the English director Mike Leigh tells the story of real events that took place in Manchester, the cradle of the industrial revolution, on 16th August 1819: the massacre of workers during a demonstration – known at the time as “the massacre of Peterloo”.  In the history of the workers’ movement (and not only in England!), those events – preceded by ever more frequent strikes and demonstrations – come between the fading of “Luddism” (the instinctive sabotage by home workers when the first machines were introduced heralding the beginning of the factory system) and the evolution of these scattered workers’ struggles towards the organized movement that assumed the name “Chartism” (from the “Chart” of claims it formed around), thus, between the opening years of the 1800s and the 1840s – decisive experiences which, together with others on both the economic and the political and philosophical planes, contributed to forming the humus for the establishment of dialectic materialism and communism (The Condition of the Working Class in England dates to 1844, The Manifesto of the Communist Party to 1848). But back to Manchester. 

Peterloo does not and did not exist on the map of the city. What did exist then were St. Peter’s Fields, a large, open space in which it was customary to hold rallies and meetings in the open air.  On that August day, between 60 and 80 thousand people gathered there to listen to the most famous agitators of the time: the future Chartist, Mary Fildes, the journalist Richard Carlile, the weaver-poet Samuel Bamford, the radical speaker Henry Hunt… The demonstration had been called to protest against the widespread corruption in Parliament (two centuries have gone by…) and claim universal suffrage and deep, wide-reaching social reform at a time – as has been said – of horrendous living and working conditions, as well as fierce workers’ struggles.  The demonstrators came from all over Manchester, from Salford and the towns and villages of a Lancashire at the peak of its industrial revolution: men, women and children.  Facing them was an intimidating police and military apparatus: the local police, special agents, hussar regiments and the Royal Mounted Artillery.  At one point during Hunt’s speech, after the ritual reading of the Riot Act, the hussars and mounted artillery came into action using extreme violence: the deaths registered came to 15, including a child of two and the mother of seven young children, with between 400 and 700 wounded – figures that in all probability are underestimated.  “Merrie Olde England”…  There was enormous indignation, fuelled, too, by the fervent reports in the “Guardian” and other important local and national newspapers: the editor of one of them coined the expression “Peterloo”, a sarcastic reference to the battle of Waterloo four years previously, when the cavalry and the hussars had been leading elements in the British victory over Napoleon’s French armies.

The Prime Minister at the time was the hated Lord Castlereagh, responsible for further repressive action in England and in Ireland, backed up by the equally hated Home Secretary Lord Sidmouth.  The rebel poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was in Italy at the time, on hearing of the massacre spontaneously wrote a long poem in which he imagined a procession of government members concealed behind hideous, bloody masks: Castlereagh with the “Assassin” mask, Sidmouth with the mask of “Hypocrisy”, followed by “many more Destructions […],/ In this ghastly masquerade,/All disguised, even to the eyes,/Like Bishops, lawyers, peers, or spies.”  The poem contained a stanza addressing the English people who had been victims of the whims of power for too long: “Rise like Lions after slumber/In unvanquishable number,/Shake your chains to earth like dew/Which in sleep had fallen on you --/ Ye are many -- they are few.”

As for Castlereagh, when he became insane and committed suicide three years later, the poet Byron wrote an explicit epitaph, which read: “Posterity will ne'er survey/ a Nobler grave than this:/ Here lie the bones of Castlereagh:/ Stop, traveller, and piss!”

What could be clearer than that…?

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